Wednesday 25 June 2014

Institutional Fear and Academic Performance

I had a discussion with a senior colleague the other day about ways to improve the quality of learning experiences in the institution. Many institutions in the UK and elsewhere have in recent years seen some very unpleasant restructuring programmes which left many out of work, and of those who remained, lower salaries and more work is not uncommon. Ironically, some of that extra work is in attempting to maintain the machinery of "academic quality": such are the strange ways of austerity! The rhetoric to 'ramp-up quality' and to ensure that teachers teach in the most efficient and effective manner, improving student retention  and the quality of learning experiences has become rather more shrill, as these issues are of increasing importance to the viability of the organisation. Such conditions lead to the permanent implicit threat of either "you're out if you're not good enough", or "you're out if your programme doesn't recruit students" or "you're out if overall student recruitment is down", or "we can replace you with someone cheaper". There's still a lot of fear around being fed by interventions beyond the initial trauma of the still-raw restructuring process.

I suggested to my colleague that if the organisation took deliberate steps to reduce the institutional fear, then academic performance would improve. He disagreed quite strongly: "where's your evidence?" he said. I admitted that all I had to go on was having seen frightened teachers teach - frightened teachers who are still excellent colleagues - the results are not very good. Not really compelling evidence, and I'm sure he wasn't convinced by my fluffy appeals for "managing the mood" in the institution. But I've been thinking a bit more about this. It strikes me that since we have really no idea about what is going on in educational processes (particularly when it really works), we should be careful about ruling out any causal connection - particularly one which intuitively at least doesn't seem unreasonable. What might lead us to rule things out are blindnesses which set in through over-attachments to theoretical paradigms, or shadow motivations by senior managers for increasing personal control, or confusion between popular behaviourist assumptions about management with the sociology and psychology of human interactions in classrooms.

The popular theoretical paradigm of teaching and learning is social constructivism. Social constructivism has roots in Soviet (for which one might read 'systemic') psychological theories of Vygotsky and Leonti'ev, american pragmatism (Dewey), and later in the cybernetics of the 1940s. In e-learning, Diana Laurillard established her conversation model as a catch-all for many popular theories of social construction drawing of Vygotsky, Piaget, Kolb, etc - but above all, from Gordon Pask upon whose conversation theory it is based. In recent years, these ideas have been picked up by George Siemens and Stephen Downes as they defended the pedagogical model behind the MOOC.

There are important reasons as to why Social Constructivism might not be right - indeed, why cybernetics itself has some important flaws. Recent work criss-crossing biology, philosophy, sociology, information theory and physics all seems to be pointing in this direction: Terry Deacon's biologically-inspired critique of cybernetics, Katherine Hayles's sociological critique, Alain Badiou's (and Roy Bhasker's) philosophical critique - together with the growth of new movements like Speculative Realism which see the roots of the problem in a post-Kantian inheritance which now needs to be unpicked. This has real implications for our learning theory which at least raises a question mark over the efficacy of social constructivism as a model of teaching and learning, together with all the ideas about 'good practice' which have been grounded in it. The central issue is "what's not there?" - it relates to the ways scientists understand the 'dark matter' of human engagement.

My greatest teacher was Ian Kemp at Manchester University (see He was an unconventional academic: he exemplified a kind of openness, intellectual generosity and endless curiosity not just about music (his field) but everything. Without a PhD he would never have got anywhere in today's universities! What was remarkable about him is his willingness to "tell it how it is", without the fear that less confident members of the department were prone to. He knew what he was about, but he was always willing to "pop his own bubble" (a phrase he was fond of), and he valued particularly highly the views of his students who, in his opinion, had the great advantage of "fresh ears".

I don't think what Ian did was social constructivism, or instructionalism (although you might have diagnosed elements of both in his teaching). He would have viewed any "ism" that was applied to his teaching with suspicion. What he did was engage on a deep human level, entirely comfortable to take risks, and lacking any kind of defensiveness. His own lack of fear gave his students confidence to know that nothing they said might be deemed stupid: the stupid questions were usually the best. What he revealed was, most deeply, himself. This was simply the most open and honest person I had ever met - irrespective of the fact that he was deeply committed to understanding music. It is this encounter with openness, honesty and the willingness to 'reveal oneself' which were the characteristics of my experience and the reasons why it has stayed with me for so long.

In such encounters, what's "not there" is important. Quite simply one cannot put one's finger on it. If it was a sound it would be some extraordinarily rich and complex harmony which is analytically unfathomable. (I remember an incident in a workshop with a particular complex passage in a Tippett quartet and Ian asked his academic colleagues "what's going on there then?" - they struggled to impress with clever analyses. Kemp smiled, saying "maybe.... but maybe it's just a nice noise!") If we were to ask about the conditions which allow the 'nice noise' of his teaching to happen, then I think fearlessness would be top of the list. The causal mechanisms around this are obscure - but whatever's going on, the effects are palpable: the encounter with fearlessness is visceral. We can speculate as to why this might be (this is one of my obsessions in this blog) but what is clear is that popular theories are deficient.

Managerial elites inhabit a strangely rigid world where teaching and learning are functions (delivered by functionaries, not real people) whose operations can be scientifically mapped out, and once they have been, they can be reproduced (and the functionaries replaced if they don't come up to scratch). My colleague is particularly keen on the 'scientific' metaphor to defend his idealism about teaching. The chief weapon that such people have for ensuring that everyone adhere's to the plan is fear. It takes courage to tell them they are wrong, and most staff in universities lack that courage to begin with. It takes greater courage still to demonstrate exactly how they are wrong. To do that, you have to become like Ian Kemp.

But they are wrong and the dissociation between power, theory and human reality spells real danger. Institutional fear cannot be dissociated from the business of thinking, learning and knowing. Institutional fear will skew knowledge and with it (if we not alert to the dangers) civil society. 

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